Tag Archives: Canada

One Author’s Personal Tribute to the men of RAF Bomber Command

“Although author George Stratford’s  novel, Buried Pasts, consists entirely of fictional characters and events, his inspiration to create this story came from an all too real source – his Canadian father, a pilot who was killed in action on the 19th July 1944 whilst serving with 78 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command. George was just six weeks old at the time.”

Read a sample chapter. 


High flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (9 June 1922 – 11 December 1941) was an American aviator and poet during World War II. He was serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he joined before the United States officially entered the war. He is most famous for his poem “High Flight”.  

Magee enclosed the poem on the back of a letter to his parents.

Magee was killed at the age of 19, while flying Spitfire VZ-H, serial number AD-291.

Part of the official letter to his parents read: “Your son’s funeral took place at Scopwick Cemetery, near Digby Aerodrome, at 2:30 P.M. on Saturday, 13 December 1941, the service being conducted by Flight Lieutenant S. K. Belton, the Canadian padre of this Station. He was accorded full Service Honours, the coffin being carried by pilots of his own Squadron.”

Lead and I shall follow

The decisive factor in the morale of bomber aircrew was leadership.

A post-war medical report stated:

“The morale of a squadron was almost always a direct proportion to the quality of leadership shown by the squadron commanders, and the fluctuations in this respect were most remarkable.”

What qualities to look for in a leader? Someone who is honest, forward-looking, competent, inspiring and intelligent? The RAF had very clear ideas about what it took- you must be an upper class gentlemen with a public (what in North America would be considered ‘private’) education.

There are sure to be many examples of COs who forced the respect of their men through the rings on their sleeves. It is equally certain that there are many tales of inspiring leadership that prompted extraordinary acts.

The Air Ministry fretted over lapses in discipline (particularly in relation to many of the colonial crews- Canada’s 6 Group had an STD rate 5 times higher than any other group!):

“Aircrew are becoming more and more divorced from their legitimate leaders, and their officers are forgetting, if they ever learnt them, their responsibilities to their men.” wrote the Inspector General of the RAF in 1943.

But did a lack of discipline equate to a lack of leadership?

In the next few posts we’ll look at leadership, from the very highest commands to cold, fear-riddled aircraft over Germany.

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
~Proverbs 29:18

Wings over Alberta

On December 17, 1939, two months after joining World War II, Canada signed on to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Far from Europe and destructive German attacks, yet closer to Britain than Australia or New Zealand, Canada was the ideal training ground for Commonwealth air force recruits.

Dozens of training schools opened across Canada, including 18 in Alberta. They impacted the economic, political and social life of dozens of communities and left a lasting impression on the Canadian landscape.

In small prairie cities and towns such as Vulcan, Claresholm and Medicine Hat, young airmen from around the world arrived to train for the battle that raged in the skies over Europe.

 A digital collection, including first hand recollections of those who trained in Alberta

Wings Over Alberta explores a unique period in the formation of the plan and the role that it played in Canada’s contribution to World War II.

Although no longer updated, the site is owned by the University of Alberta and includes links to original documents, photographs and stories.

British Commonwealth Air Training Plan: the Aerodrome of Democracy

Harvard airplane

Harvards were used as a trainer aircraft by thousands of Commonwealth aviators from 1940 onwards

In 1942 the RAF was fielding the most highly trained front-line fighters in the history of warfare.

By this time, most of the pre-war generation of regular aircrew had been killed off, were promoted to non-operational roles, or were languishing in German POW camps.

The need to advance technology and increase production was paramount for success, but so was replenishing the ever-depleting stock of qualified aircrew. An experienced pilot was a valuable commodity. So much so, that it became a grim reality of war that pilots would be shot at after they had baled out and were parachuting to the ground: one couldn’t afford the risk that the pilot would live, pick himself up and walk straight into the next available aircraft.

Training itself was a dangerous business. 5,327 men were killed and a further 3,113 were injured in RAF training accidents between 1939-45.

British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was a massive, joint military aircrew training program created by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  It remains the single largest aviation training program in history and was responsible for training nearly half the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, air gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers who served with the RAF.

The United Kingdom was considered an unsuitable location for air training, due to the possibility of enemy attack, the strain caused by wartime traffic at airfields and the unpredictable climate, so the plan called for the facilities in the Dominions to train British and each others’ aircrews.

Negotiations regarding joint training, between the four governments concerned, took place in Ottawa during the first few months of the war. On 17 December 1939, they signed the Air Training Agreement – often referred to as the “Riverdale Agreement”, after the UK representative at the negotiations, Lord Riverdale.

The Agreement called for the training of nearly 50,000 aircrew each year, for as long as necessary: 22,000 aircrew from Great Britain, 13,000 from Canada, 11,000 from Australia and 3,300 from New Zealand. Under the agreement, air crews received elementary training in various Commonwealth countries before travelling to Canada for advanced courses.


Canada was chosen as the primary location for “The Plan” due to ample supplies of fuel, wide open spaces suitable for flight and navigation training, industrial facilities for the production of trainer aircraft, parts and supplies. It was also far from the frontline and was far beyone the reaches of the Luftwaffe.

Due to its prominence in the plan, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to Canada as “the Aerodrome of Democracy”, a play on his earlier description of the United States as “the Arsenal of Democracy.”

At its height, The Plan included 231 training sites and more than 10,000 aircraft and 100,000 military administrative personnel.

In late 1944, the Air Ministry announced the winding-up of the plan, since the Commonwealth air forces had long had a surplus of air crews. At the conclusion of the war, over 167,000 students, including over 50,000 pilots, trained in Canada under the programme from May 1940 to March 1945. While the majority of those who successfully completed the programme went on to serve in the RAF, over half (72,835) of the 131,553 graduates were Canadians.

List of British Commonwealth Air Training Plan facilities in Canada

Romantic young idealists

Our grandfather was obviously one of these graduates.

Why would a young man, living so far from the war, wish to sacrifice himself for this distant cause?

Hastings writes of the volunteers:

“Now, in the spirit of Kitchener’s New Armies of 1915, the first flower of volunteers of 1939 were reaching the squadrons. These were the romantic young idealists, almost to a man aspiring fighter pilots, many of them colonials who would make such an enormous contribution to Bomber Command- New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians. They had trained all over the world for two years or more- some in America, others in Canada, Rhodesia, South Africa. The pilots and navigators represented the highest skills” (173).

Memorial marks bravery of Second World War Canadian pilots

A memorial has been unveiled at the site where a Vickers Wellington bomber crashed 67 years ago killing all five Canadian aircrew.